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Writing 1962: Analysing Diplomatic Writing on Sino-Indian Border Conflict by Madhura Balasubramaniam

Image Courtesy: TIBETSCAPES

Article Courtesy: TIBETSCAPES

Article: 56/2022

Diplomacy may be life without maps, but an understanding of its history enables us to chart new paths and address fault lines. Only a combination of hindsight about history, and foresight, can help illuminate the pathways to an ultimate solution (Rao 2021, 469-70).

This quote from Ambassador Nirupama Rao’s The Fractured Himalaya succinctly captures the goals of diplomatic writing in bolstering our understanding of Indian foreign policy and its historical context. Why do members of the foreign policy and armed forces establishments undertake this exercise of studying policy decisions when their analyses are often highly critical of the institutions that they worked in? It is not merely an uncritical attempt to apportion blame for the difficult Sino-India relationship. Rather, as reflected in Rao’s quote, it is a considered internal critique that provides a valuable record as well as an analysis of the policy-making exercise. What is the unique perspective that diplomats bring to an understanding of contemporary interstate relations? What drives diplomatic analysis? How does the professional location and training of diplomats shape their policy analysis? Most significantly, what are the disciplinary limits to this form of writing and how does that determine the scope, function and politics of diplomatic writing?

This essay takes as its empirical focus the diplomatic scholarship on the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship in the lead up to and beyond the 1962 border conflict. In addition to Ambassador Rao, I draw on the writings of Ambassador Shivshankar Menon, Ambassador Shyam Saran, Ambassador CV Ranganathan, Ambassador Vijay Gokhale, Ambassador RS Kalha, Mr. AS Bhasin, Mr. Karunakar Gupta, Major General DK Palit and Brigadier JP Dalvi. In engaging with their analysis of the causes and consequences of the conflict, I seek to contextualize the practitioner perspective and highlight the possibilities and limitations of this approach in understanding Indian foreign policy.

Photo Credits: Gokul KS

Situating Practitioner Analysis

There is a long-standing tradition, tracing to the colonial period, of bureaucrats writing histories of the regions they governed and institutions they operated within. These were treated as authoritative accounts of these regions and played a significant role in shaping imperial imaginaries and interests in the colonized world. For example, colonial administrators and army officers, such as Francis Younghusband, Charles Bell and Hugh Richardson, have been central in creating knowledge of Tibet, its history, people and culture in the empire’s imagination. In their writing, they produce Tibet as a remote and inaccessible country, removed from their neighbours and populated by peaceful and mystical Buddhists. This construction is deeply political and deployed at various times to justify British interventions and policies towards Tibet. For instance, in India and Tibet, Younghusband argues that British India could not” leave this remote State on the far side of the mighty Himalayas severely alone” due to the threat from Russia (Younghusband 1910, 2). Here, Tibet’s remoteness and lack of participation in the international order serves to legitimize the Younghusband mission. Similarly, in his talk titled Tibet Past and Present, Richardson argues that the Tibetan community was stuck in the “ways of the past” and unwilling to reform and enter a “more practical relationship with the world” (Richardson, 1963, 9). He attributes the failure of British policies of creating Tibet as a buffer zone and Tibet’s inability to secure widespread support for its independence to its backwardness and remoteness.

After independence, the tradition of diplomatic writing has continued to remain important, shaping popular, bureaucratic and academic knowledge of the Sino-Indian relationship. Drawing on Kate Sullivan’s (2014) argument that diplomatic self-understandings are vital in studies of Indian foreign policy, I argue that the diplomatic voice provides a crucial lens into how everyday workings of the bureaucracy create powerful dominant images of the spaces that the state governs. Analysing diplomatic writing as a genre with specific concerns and interests allows us to conceptualize Indian history through the frames of the people that populate the country’s bureaucratic institutions. The following section maps the key arguments presented by diplomats with respect to the causes and outcomes of the 1962 conflict.

The Practitioner Perspective

Emphasising their position as diplomat practitioners, Rao (2021, xx) and Menon (2016, 125), among others, build their foreign policy analysis with a focus on the complexities of the international, bilateral and domestic contexts that inform policy decisions. Their insights, developed from the expertise accrued from the ringside view of foreign policy, are further bolstered by archival research.

Rao, Bhasin, Gupta and Kalha argue that independent India inherited Himalayan frontiers that were shaped by imperial interests that did not always prioritise settled and policed borders, especially in remote Himalayan regions. Demarcating these inherited boundaries presents an ongoing challenge for the postcolonial Indian state. India’s experience of partition makes the process of determining the country’s territorial limits more complex. Additionally, as an outcome of the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Berubari case [i], a constitutional amendment with two thirds majority is necessary to cede territory to another sovereign state. This reinforces the popular and bureaucratic resistance to the further dismemberment of the body politic (Rao 2021, 365; see also Bhasin 2021).

In response, the newly independent Indian state that had inherited frontier zones undertook several iterative measures to transform these regions into concrete territorial boundaries to be defended and protected against Chinese ingress in the 1950s (see also Kalha, 2014). This is perhaps best illustrated by Prime Minister Nehru’s decision to address historically interrupted processes of boundary delimitation by defining the western sector with a definite territorial border in maps of India in 1954 (see also Gupta 1974a, 1974b).

Photo Credits: Sonika Gupta

Indian foreign policy towards China negotiated a shifting terrain between colonial continuities and some radical departures from the colonial past. In a remarkable act of anti-colonial solidarity, India decided its special privileges in Tibet accruing from the British period, such as maintaining armed escorts, could no longer be retained. These privileges were viewed as imperial scars by the Chinese. Consequently, India had already decided to withdraw these facilities even prior to the formal negotiations with China in 1954 (Rao 2021, 132). Often in present popular media discourse, this is often misunderstood as India conceding to Chinese pressure over Tibet.

Even though diplomatic writing provides a situated analysis of foreign policy decisions, it is not an uncritical defence of the Indian state’s policies. Instead, the practitioners contextualize decision-making within a critique of institutional weaknesses, including lack of deliberation in policy-making and inflexible policy stances adopted in this period.

Much of the diplomatic analysis of Sino-Indian bilateral relations foregrounds Nehru’s role in decision-making. This scholarship recognises that any Indian Prime Minister typically plays the key leadership role in shaping the goals of foreign policy and strategies to be pursued. Several practitioners argue that Nehru’s stature as an anticolonial nationalist leader and a statesman often meant that he had a significantly persuasive presence within foreign policy institutions in 1950s and 1960s. Nehru helmed several important decisions including a) delinking diplomatic recognition of the PRC from delimiting Sino-Indian boundaries and the status of Tibet, b) not raising concerns over unsettled borders during the 1954 negotiations and c) the alteration of the Western sector boundaries (Gokhale 2021; Bhasin 2021 Bhasin 2021; Rao 2021; Dalvi, Palit). However, diplomatic writing does not provide an unqualified judgement of Nehru’s personal failings in evaluating 1962 and instead focuses on institutional gaps. Practitioners note that given foreign policy institutions were nascent and still developing, Nehru’s analysis of situations and convictions often held sway and senior bureaucrats demurred from being vocally critical of his policies. Described variously as “Pandit-jee knows best” syndrome (Bhasin 2021, 270) and the diplomatic tradition of not contradicting Caesar (Rao 2021, xxiv), this lack of critical engagement by the high-ranking Indian bureaucrats is seen as a fundamental failing that prevented the adoption of a more effective policy that would allow for negotiations on the borders.

Shifting the scale of analysis from the institutional and historical perspective, the quotidian functioning of the foreign policy bureaucracy and the armed forces establishment serves as another entry point for the practitioner. Here, Bhasin’s analysis privileges archival detail in studying the bilateral relationship with a specific focus on Tibet as a point of conflict between India and China. He provides a near verbatim recounting of Zhou-Nehru’s 1960 summit from archival sources to highlight India’s inflexible stance on the borders. This serves as evidence for the argument that the summit was a missed opportunity to stem the growing rift in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship that ultimately culminated in the 1962 conflict (Bhasin 2021; see also Menon 2016; Ranganathan 2001; Rao 2021).

In a similar emphasis on detail, Palit and Dalvi in their analysis draw on their role as military commanders in the 1962 conflict as Director of Military Operations and Commander of the 7th Infantry Brigade, respectively. They argue that a fundamental breakdown in communication with civil administration, within the armed forces hierarchy and across services placed consequential limits on the army’s operational capacity, prevented adequate preparation and ultimately culminated in India’s rout in 1962. Dalvi and Palit bolster their accounts through triangulation with narratives of colleagues on the ground (Dalvi 1969, xiv-xv) and quoting extensively from documents of the period that they were privy to (Palit 1991, viii). Together, they develop a granular analysis of the causes of the 1962 conflict that informs and is informed by the contextual analysis of other diplomat practitioners discussed above.

Practitioner’s Prescription

The body of diplomatic writing discussed here does not stop with uncovering the causes of the 1962 war and ascertaining the shortfalls of decision-makers and institutions involved. Rather this scholarship seeks to diagnose and mitigate the structural conditions that led to the 1962 conflict to prevent another crisis on the border. In doing so, this scholarship treats 1962 not as the teleological end of Sino-Indian relations, but as an enduring “point of uncertainty” that impinges on the contemporary bilateral relationship (Saran 2008, 27).

In response, there is a common call for “maturity” in Chinese and Indian policy. For instance, Ranganathan (2001, 129) invites policymakers to break out of the historical mould of treating China as an aggressor. He argues that it would be more productive to facilitate constructive cooperation and create a comprehensive security plan as a framework to enable the same (Ranganathan 1998; see also Bhattacharjea and Ranganathan 2000). Saran (2008) emphasises the importance of developing economic relations and people-to-people exchanges to further strengthen and diversify the Sino-Indian relationship towards mutually beneficial goals. Another important suggestion from Gokhale (2021) & Saran (2014) is to develop a greater understanding of Chinese diplomatic behaviour to enable fruitful negotiations.

Equally vital in this body of writing is a staunch commitment to sharing the truth with the reader. This is vital to guard against the collective amnesia imposed through the destruction of operational records and preventing public access to archival records (Bhasin 2021, Palit 1991, Dalvi 1969; see also Gupta 1974a, 1974b). This act of truth-telling is prescriptive in its import and urges the state to make its archives accessible in their entirety so that the nation is aware of its history and can make choices to not only prevent another armed conflagration, but also to create the conditions to resolve such disputes.

Jaswantgarh War Memorial, Tawang

Photo Credits: Sonika Gupta

In this context then, the politics of archival research becomes central. It also necessitates moving beyond the view that the archives house the unvarnished truth surrounding the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship between 1949 and 1962. Instead, it is significant to foreground the politics of the production of government documents and the role of writing and paper in producing authoritative versions of events. How do we read along and against the archival grain to capture these politics? How do we think about the practitioner’s position and identity and how that impinges on access and analysis of archival resources?

Limits of Diplomatic Writing

In critically examining diplomatic writing on 1962, it is also important to focus on the actors and events rendered invisible or under emphasised in this narrative. In extending the colonial trope of treating Tibet as the object of British interests with no substantive role in shaping its own political future, Indian diplomats too bracket away Tibet’s agency in determining its relationship with independent India and the PRC. For example, the Tibetan demand for the return of territories beyond the McMahon line in 1947 does not fit very neatly within a framework of Sino-Indian relations, where Tibet is cast as a victim of Chinese aggression. These events find critical discussion within academic writing (see Gupta 2021) and raise the question of the limits of diplomatic writing.

Diplomatic writing emphasizes the centrality of detail and context against the backdrop of shrill public debates on foreign policy that have no room for complexity

What is the scaffolding of diplomatic writing – what is permissible and what remains out of scope? Here, the legal constraints on diplomatic writing, such as amended pension rules for civil servants that prevent members of security and intelligence agencies from publishing information and their expertise without clearance of the organisation’s leadership, also limit the scope of diplomatic writing.

Significance of Diplomatic Writing

Diplomatic writing as a distinct genre demonstrates the contributions of diplomats in furthering our understanding of contemporary India. Diplomatic writing emphasizes the centrality of detail and context against the backdrop of shrill public debates on foreign policy that have no room for complexity. In contrast to the popular discourse that blames Nehru’s naivete for being outmanoeuvred by the scheming Chinese in 1962, the diplomat practitioners call for a contextual analysis of policy decisions, drawing on institutional records. Rather than evaluating decisions with the benefit of hindsight, they ask whether India had concrete options to take a different policy stance at a given point in time. For example, in discussing India’s position on Tibet’s occupation in 1950, Rao, Menon and Bhasin argue that India did not have any effective military or strategic options to intervene in Tibet and change the outcomes in that period. This runs counter to the prevailing public opinion that Nehru gave up on Tibet in 1950.

This call to be alive to the intricacies of foreign policy making is especially relevant against the backdrop of the recent low-intensity border clashes between the Indian and Chinese soldiers in Tawang. The polarized public debate, exemplified by the #NehruBlunders hashtag, remains hostile to a nuanced and historically rooted understanding of the Sino-Indian border conflict. Analyses by diplomats serve an important role in this regard by filling the gaps in public discourse and reorienting the discussion to a more integral reading of events as they unfold. Here, diplomatic writing not only illuminates the way for resolutions in the future, as Ambassador Rao suggests, but also creates paths to better understand the present.

India Border Post, LAC, Bumla, Tawang

Photo Credits: Gokul KS

(Ms. Madhura Balasubramaniam is a Ph.D. Scholar, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S.)


[i] The Berubari case refers to the negotiations between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Berubari. As part of the Nehru-Noon Agreement of 1958, it was decided that Berubari would be divided horizontally, and the lower half was granted to Pakistan. The West Bengal Assembly challenged this decision. The President of India referred the matter to the Supreme Court to adjudge whether a constitutional amendment was required to implement the provisions of the Nehru-Noon Agreement. Read more here:


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